The First Salmon Ceremony is a sacred event. The tribal fishermen always knew when it was time for the salmon to return. All fishing stopped as soon as the first salmon was caught, and immediate preparations were made on shore for its reception. Not until these preparations were complete could that salmon be brought ashore. All the sick people must be removed from the village, as were pregnant women and those women and girls who were in their regular monthly time. All dead bodies of people and animals must be removed from the village. It was a must for the village to go through a thorough house-cleaning.
Then the salmon was carried into the village in a ceremonial way. The salmon was laid with proper ceremony on a new reed mat on the bank of the river. The head of the fish was pointed upstream (the direction it had been travelling), and a ripe fruit of some sort was placed in its mouth. The head man of the village, dressed in his best regalia, approached the salmon in a solemn manner, with the rest of the village accompanying.
The Tyee (chief) or shaman then took over the ceremony. He addressed the salmon in the following manner. “Oh swimmer, we are sorry that we found it necessary to take your life. It was necessary to do this that our people may not starve. We now celebrate your willingness to travel to us to give your life that we might have life.”
Every person in the village had a taste of that salmon. The salmon people came and offered their bodies to us that we might use them for food and nourishment. They are considered sacred. The bones of their bodies were never thrown into the garbage, but the Tyee or shaman would see to it that the bones were returned to the river, so that they might return to the ocean to be with their salmon people. This guaranteed that they would be with us again. The shaman might say, “Return to your people in the sea swimmer. Tell them that the Cowlitz treated you with great respect and ceremony. You were laid on a clean mat with your head pointed upstream, and we gave a great ceremony in your honor.”
The curing of the smelt is also an important sacred event that takes place in a traditional tribal way.
Spirit Lake, at the foot of Lawelatla (Mt. St. Helens), was known as that before the white man came here. It was a place where the spirits of evil people went after their decease. These evil spirits were known as the Seatco, and they did evil things. They were the spirits of people from different tribes who had been cast out because of their wickedness. Spirit Lake was considered to be a dangerous place in which to go. One might hear the sound of waterfalls where there were no waterfalls. They were able to trick the Indians because they could imitate any animal or sound. It was believed that a demon lived in the lake that was so huge that it could stretch clear across the lake and drag a human down into the lake.